Yesterday, a jury decided when Tim DeChristopher, an environmental activist, bid almost $2 million that he didn't have on oil and gas leases being auctioned off by the government in 2008, he broke the law. His crimes were making a false statement to the government and disrupting the auction.
Since the judge ruled out a defense based on DeChristopher's motive—staking a stand against federal energy policies and their contribution to climate change—the legal question was simple enough. But the trial has troubled those involved with it: The Salt Lake Tribune reported that jury struggled with the decision, and one juror told the paper, "There were some tears. There were some watery eyes." Kirk Johnson, who covered the trial for The New York Times, wrote today that the trial pushed him to consider "a pretty deep question":
"In assessing offenses driven by environmental concerns, is an understanding of the “why” crucial to the truth?…Would the jury have assessed things differently if the defendant’s deeper psychological portrait had emerged – specifically his belief that risks to the planet and the future are so dire and urgent that rules must be broken? Or is the “rule of law,” as an assistant United States attorney, John W. Huber, put in it his closing argument, crucial to civil society — the linchpin of protecting everything we have, including and perhaps especially the environment?"
For anyone who believes there's value in not letting the planet go into climate change-induced seizures, it's pretty clear that the "rule of law" has so far failed to deal with both the practical and ethical issues that years of atmospheric pollution have raised. And, yes, I think the jury would have assessed things differently if they were allowed to consider whether the issue DeChristopher was trying to address merited a solution outside the rules. The Obama administration validated DeChristopher's concerns just months after his arrest when it decided not to auction off rights to those plots of land.
But I think there's another reason people close to this trial are troubled: DeChristopher faces real consequences for his actions. The prosecutor in the case has said she will not seek the maximum penalty, up to 10 years in prison, but if he's sentenced to five years, or even two years, DeChristopher will be paying a high price for his political actions.
Political protests in this country tend to follow a script in which nothing much is at stake. Contrast DeChristopher's fate with this account, from author and climate activist Bill McKibben, of the "first instance of civil disobedience on climate change in the country," in which he and the activist Doris Haddock (more widely known as Granny D) participated: "We were arrested together a decade ago…Compared with Tim we took no real risk -- as it turned out, we didn't even spend the whole night in jail." And in Wisconsin, while the political stakes are high, the risk to any individual protestor is low. It's the sort of protest to which parents bring their 21-year-old kids in order to teach them lessons about political accountability and to get misty-eyed about the Vietnam era. Although the political outcome isn't so clear, everyone assumes that, sooner rather than later, they'll make it home to their warm beds.
DeChristopher, on the other hand, did not have any sense of what would come next. As Time Magazine reported, "Earlier in the trial BLM Special Agent Love, who questioned DeChristopher after the 2008 auction, stated that upon questioning DeChristopher wanted to know how much trouble he was in." A lot, it turned out.